When I think about Westerns as a cinematic genre, rarely do I think of any films made in my life time. I will not comment on how long of a stretch of years that is. Regardless, Westerns reached their zenith at a time in our country’s history when we looked to a mythic past for inspiration in dealing with an increasingly chaotic world. After World War II, the international boogeyman of fascism was replaced by global communism, and the Cold War set in between the United States and the Soviet Union. In film, cowboys or the cavalry were the Americans and pretty much everyone else represented the Red Menace. It took a toughness to face these threats, and many of these qualities were embodied in the person of John Wayne. And then the 1960s happened. In the realm of geo-politics, the Vietnam War told the public that our government’s pursuit of the policy of containment had gone too far. The desire for peace manifested itself in culture, particularly in the hippie movement, and movies were no exception. Though Hollywood did not stop making Westerns, the themes changed. No longer did you have the romantic figures of the Old West, but instead you started seeing outlaws elevated to hero status. Still, even for them their time was at an end. You can see many of these characteristics in today’s film, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969).
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid begins with a nod to the Old Westerns by showing a silent film version of the title pair robbing a train. We then see Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman), with the film still in black and white, casually stroll into a heavily guarded bank as it is being shuttered at closing time with heavy metal locks. Across town, his partner in crime, the Sundance Kid (Robert Redford), is being accused of cheating at cards. Only with Butch’s intervention does that situation not escalate into bloodshed. As they ride out of town to their famous hide out known as the “hole in the wall,” the film becomes color, remaining so for the rest of the film. Because the two are gone so often, their gang, named after their hide out, begins to grow restless and challenges Butch’s leadership upon their return. The main upstart is Harvey Logan (Ted Cassidy), and Butch bests him not through physical prowess, but by essentially rigging the fight. Butch then steals Harvey’s idea to rob a train. After the heist is completed, the gang goes their separate ways, and Butch and Sundance overlook a local sheriff trying to muster a posse of locals to go after their gang. Sundance then rides off and into the arms of Etta Place (Katherine Ross), a school teacher and his lover. She is also close with Butch for he comes round the next day and they share a bike ride together. Not long after, the gang repeats the process. However, just as they are about to make off with the money, another train pulls up and from it springs a set of horsemen bent on pursuing Butch and Sundance. Their focus is solely on the two leaders, and they ignore other members of the gang making their getaway. The more they chase Butch and Sundance, the more the outlaws realize how relentless are those after them. They try every trick they know to lose them, before finally resorting to jumping off a cliff into a fast-flowing river to finally effect their escape. Assessing their options, which at one point involved joining the army to fight in the Spanish-American War, they land on an idea Butch had been floating to Sundance for some time: traveling to Bolivia. According to Butch, there is gold rush going on down there, and the banks will be full of money and will be easy pickings. And off they go, bringing Etta with them. When they arrive, though, they find out it is not the garden spot they expected. Plus, they had to master some rudimentary Spanish in order to be understood during their robberies, a language of which Butch seriously oversold his knowledge. Luckily, Etta was able to teach Butch and Sundance some of the right words, and she even helps a few of the hold-ups. Things are beginning to go well until one evening at dinner they think they spot one of the men that tracked them back in the United States. In desperation, they attempt to find legitimate jobs, working as guards for a mining operation as they ferry the payroll to and from La Paz. This, too, ends in disaster when other bandits waylay them, killing their boss. Butch and Sundance are forced to gun down the bandits, an act that tells them there is no turning away from their lives of crime. It is at this point that Etta decides to go back to the United States, sensing that something bad is coming and not wanting to see them die. That comes when they ride into another town and are recognized as the now infamous “Bandidos Yanquis.” In the ensuing gun battle, a patrol of the Bolivian army is called in, and they cut down the famous duo in a hail of bullets when they emerge from their final hiding spot.
At least that is what the end of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid suggests. History roughly agrees that they died in Bolivia, though there are many reported sighting of Cassidy after their supposed demises. I mention this because the film stops just as they run out of the room they are in, intent on jumping on their horses and escaping. The frame freezes, turns to black and white, and you hear the sounds of dozens of guns being fired at once. It is a poignant end to a pair that held on to a way of life for longer than did the rest of the West. This speaks to the overarching theme of the film: dealing with change. I could give you a short historical treatise on what was going on, both at the time it was filmed and the events it depicts. However, I would instead like to talk about it spiritually. That is, after all, the intent of this blog. Faith is, in many respects, a coping mechanism for change. The Bible does not speak too specifically about change, but there are verses that can help. One thing Christians are called into is a constant state of renewal. Our relationship with the Lord will look differently in five years compared to what it is now, provided you keep earnestly seeking Him. 1 Corinthians 13:11 speaks to the maturation process that takes place in all of us. When we are young, we behave accordingly, but then life presents new challenges, opportunities, pains, etc., and we change with them. The baseline is God and His love for us. Butch and Sundance have trouble accepting that things are different, right up until their deaths. When they are on the run following their second train robbery, they cannot understand why their pursuers are so relentless in their chase. The West had grown up, becoming the Old West of American lore, and they had yet to grasp the switch. And apparently the powers that be were no longer going to tolerate their shenanigans.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is a good movie, though I always liken it to being a hippie Western. The relationship between Butch, Sundance, and Etta is a strange one. It is also not helped by the first scene when you see Sundance and Etta together. He forces her at gun point to remove her clothing, and if you have not seen the film and do not understand the dynamics of their relationship, you could think there is something wrong taking place. Even though I know they are a couple, the scene still kind of bothers me, not to mention their unmarried status. Otherwise, it is a solid piece of classic cinema.